Space Domain Awareness Top Priority for USSPACECOM

Space Domain Awareness Top Priority for USSPACECOM

The commander of U.S. Space Command told a Senate committee today that his top priority is establishing “exquisite” Space Domain Awareness capabilities to ensure the United States knows exactly what is happening in space and why. USSPACECOM reached Initial Operational Capability in August 2021 and he assured Senators “your Space Command is ready.”

Gen. James Dickinson, Commander, U.S. Space Command, testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 8, 2022. Screengrab.

USSPACECOM Commander Gen. James Dickinson and U.S. Strategic Command Commander Adm. Charles Richard testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning as part of the committee’s FY2023 defense budget review, although the budget request has not been submitted yet.

All agreed that any discussion of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be deferred to a classified session after the open hearing, so the statements and Q&A were limited to broader topics.

Citing the escalating threats from China and Russia, Dickinson’s main theme was the need to know not just how many space objects there are and where, but their purpose. DOD refers to this as Space Domain Awareness (SDA).

“SDA remains my top mission priority,” Dickinson told the committee, because it “provides the backbone of U.S. Space Command strategy for accomplishing our mission.”

“SDA helps us analyze, not just identify, what is occuring in space, which when combined with information from our intelligence agencies, helps develop an understanding of why things are happening, characterize intent, and provide decision advantages to our leaders.”

He repeatedly referred to the 2007 Chinese and 2021 Russian antisatellite tests against their own satellites that created thousands of pieces of debris as indicative of the challenge. They are part of the rapidly increasing number of space objects in Earth orbit. When USSPACECOM was created in 2019, it was tracking 25,000 space objects. Today it is “almost 44,000.”

“I’ve got to have exquisite domain awareness … to be able to interpret what’s happening so I can make recommendations and take actions that I need to.”

Dickinson said they’ve found ground-based ballistic missile defense sensors like TPY-2 radars are useful for SDA. They “weren’t required or expected to have a capability looking up in the space domain,” but it turns out they do and data from those systems are being integrated with other SDA sensors.

Dickinson stressed that even with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China remains the major threat to the United States today.

“China remains our pacing threat. Current PLA development is directed towards creating a joint versatile, professional and lethal force capable of power projection globally and the space layer is critical to their efforts,” Dickinson said. China has more than 500 satellites today, five times what they had a decade ago. Just in 2021, it increased its “on-orbit assets by 27 percent.”

China also has counterspace weapons. He highlighted China’s direct ascent antisatellite system, the October 2021 hypersonic glide test, plus the “dual-use” SJ-21 satellite that docked with a defunct Chinese satellite in January of this year and moved it to another orbit.

Russia’s November 2021 Nudol antisatellite test underscores the threat from that country, too, but “shortfalls in funding, qualified personnel, and other resource inadequacies have hampered” their efforts while China’s space program has “ample financial and personnel resources,” he wrote in his prepared statement. However, Russia has “valuable experience” that China lacks and the two may “try to combine their respective strengths on joint projects in some areas.”

Asked by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) what would constitute an armed attack on a satellite and what a proportionate response would be since there are no internationally-adopted norms of behavior in space, Dickinson pointed to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s five Tenets of Responsible Behavior in Space as the starting point. But he quickly returned to his main message — he needs Space Domain Awareness to understand what’s going on and hopes Congress will authorize and fund those programs.

President Trump reestablished USSPACECOM in August 2019 after a 17-year hiatus. Dickinson informed Austin that it reached Initial Operational Capability in August 2021 and is ready to “address threats and take advantage of opportunities across the spectrum from competition to conflict.” Full Operational Capability isn’t expected for “a couple, three years,” Dickinson told the committee, but “I assure you here today that your Space Command is ready.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on U.S. Space Command, March 8, 2022. Screengrab.

One thing he needs for Full Operational Capability is a permanent home. USSPACECOM is temporarily headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base, CO near other military space facilities and many supporters want it to stay there. Days before leaving office, however, Trump chose Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, AL. Critics charged the decision was politically motivated and the DOD Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office are investigating.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) asked why “we’re going to spend the money and the time to relocate” Space Command considering the urgency of other matters. Dickinson just wants an answer. “For me it’s not necessarily about the location, it is about the decision. … I need a decision and based on that decision I’ll do whatever I need to do to make sure that I can achieve my mission.”

USSPACECOM is often confused with U.S. Space Force. The Space Force is one of the six military services that “organize, train, and equip” personnel who then are assigned as needed to the Unified Combatant Commands that fight wars. USSPACECOM is one of the 11 Unified Combatant Commands, as is U.S. Strategic Command.

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